Riverline Imprint On Philippine Culture

The people of Jolo, most southwest of the 7,107 islands that comprise the Philippine archipelago, believe that their forbears were towed a shore by a big fish: probably a dolphin. Dolphins abound in the surrounding seas and often figure in stories of survivors from ship disasters who say they rode to terra firma on a dolphin's back.

Philippine waters have often figured in the shaping of Philippine destiny. Rivers, lakes and other waterways have left an unmistakably marine and riverine imprint on much of Philippine culture and way of life.

Maykapal, the Filipino word for God, which means Provider, has of late caught the interest of scholars of Philippine studies. Maykapal derives from kapal, the Malay term for water vessel. Scholars see a link between the Filipino and the Malay usage of the term, Filipino being a branch of Malayo-Polynesian language. Both usages combined may well give the Filipino divinity a new attribution - as Maykapal, Provider of Water Vessel. This is no mere exercise in etymology. Early Filipinos believed that when they die their souls are transported into the sky world by a spirit boat. This ritual artifact recurs in Philippine mythology. A version sculpted in clay gracing the lid of a burial jar was discovered in the Sixties in Manunggul Cave in Palawan Province.

The Maranao of Lanao Province in Mindanao trace their origin to ancestors who came from Lanao Lake, around which much of community life takes place. At the birth of a child, the Maranao father carves a small boat - a sort of birthday boat for his newborn and sets this adrift, symbolically offering the child to the sea.

The Samal and Badjao, southern minority groups who live directly above the sea on houses supported by stilts, are said to be brought on shore only when they die and their graves are marked by the prow of boats.

It has long been held that during the Ice Age, land bridges connected the Archipelago to mainland Asia. When the ice melted, the rising seas submerged the bridges and the Philippines emerged, a graceful cluster of islands, lapped by the Pacific Ocean on one side, the China Sea on the other. Those land bridges may well have altered the course of Philippine history.

The earliest settlers were seafaring Malays who came over in frail balangays (wooden boats) and pitched camp along the shores or farther upriver. Filipinos trace their roots largely from those early boat people, much of whose culture still pervades. The village is called barangay (from balangay). Two ethnic groups, the Tagalog and the Pampango, derive their names from flog (river) and pampang (river bank). Manila, originally Maynilad, a Muslim settlement on the Manila Bay mouth of the Pasig River, was named after the flower (nilad) that grew on the river bank. Its ruler, Sulayman, was vanquished by the Spanish colonizers who saw in the Rajah's domain a likely place to lay the foundations of a Distinguished and Ever Loyal City, which is Manila today.

About two decades earlier, on March 17, 1521, the Portuguese explorer Magellan, in the course of the first circumnavigation of the globe, had landed on the islet of Homonhon in Samar, an event that marked the arrival of the first Spaniards in the Philippines that was to lead to four centuries of Spanish rule. On June 12 in 1898, Filipino freedom fighters declared the birth of a Philippine Republic. It was short-lived. The American Commodore George Dewey, bringing his fleet and the Spanish-American War of 1898 to Philippine waters, had routed, first, the Spaniards, and then the Filipinos, laying the stakes for American colonization.

When ships were the way to travel, Manila Bay was the country's front door and the Pasig River and its tributaries were the major passageway to the boroughs of Manila. At the Bay's mouth, like a sentinel, stood Corregidor, the fortress from which General Douglas MacArthur had hoped to stop the Japanese invaders in World War II. The Philippine coastline being twice as long as that of the United States, there were bound to be other points of entry. General Homma of Hirohito's Imperial Forces came in through Lingayen Gulf in the north, the route taken by the Chinese pirate Limahong as an escape hatch four centuries earlier when, having come in through Manila Bay, he sacked the city, killing among others the head of the Spanish forces, Martin de Goiti. Recouping, the Spaniards gave chase. Limahong put his men in small boats and retreated finally into the open see.

As early as the 16th century, Manila Bay was already a hub of international trade. The Spanish galleons plied a route between Manila and Acapulco, bringing over Mexican and Peruvian pesos for silks and spices. The Spaniards fought the fiercest battles in the same waters against the Dutch who had also wanted the country for their King. A big religious festival called La Naval is held to this day, originally to thank the Virgin Mary, who, the Spaniards believed, had been on their side in the battle.

Fishing occupations comprise a significant sector of the economy and was in fact the dominant sector, mainly due to the presence of 421 rivers, 59 natural lakes, four large underground water reservoirs, extensive foreshores and the seas around.

Philippine bodies of water today account for a proud number of mainstays for a modern industry - tourism - that earns critical foreign exchange. These include river festivals; dive spots from where to marvel over the world's best collection of corals and tropical fishes; an estimated 22,000 species of seashells; beaches of white, pink, or shimmering black sand; coves and subterranean waterways; waterfalls. Other geographical tidbits: The world's smallest freshwater fish (at most.38 inch long) is found in Lake Buhi in hot springs country. The Philippine Deep off Surigao in Northern Mindanao is the world's second deepest trench. Yonder is tuna belt, fishing grounds for both big organized expeditions and the small fisherman who dares brave the sea in his slender banca equipped only with outriggers. Finally, the sunset over Manila Bay that paints the skies all colors of the rainbow.